In the 1700s, textiles were costly, making a new court dress “an event for everyone; even the King’s birthday might not flush out more than ‘very little finery and many old clothes,’ as reported in 1729,” Nicola Shulman writes in “Leaping the fence”, The New Criterion, June 2020. Like most things in the 16th century, the pace of change in fashion was slow; fast forward to now, and our fashion expectations see us “chasing the cheapest clothes in history”.
In the first half of the 20th century, fashion was still mainly confined to the upper classes, with haute couture dressing the super rich. But after World War II, wealth & leisure exploded in the developed world, and fashion became accessible to the masses. And the chase began. Haute couture still dresses the super rich, but its status is diminished in our world of rapid knockoffs to meet the equally rapid changes in fashion trends. And with fashion changing so rapidly, who wants something the ‘lasts forever’?
My fashion ages: PART I
I like fashion. My blog was inspired by fashion, and Blog Number 1: Dressing up was about that budding fascination. So when I read Shulman’s article, a light bulb lit up, and I hauled down photo albums to see fashion through my ages. Not surprisingly, few photos were taken in our family in the 1940s & ’50s, and fewer still are in my possession. This paucity of photos mirrors the paucity of my childhood wardrobe, so little is lost for my fashion record.
But there were a few, and those few were an event that remains vivid in my mental album—my confirmation dress & veil, worn proudly (when I should have been humble) as the youngest member of the group being confirmed by the Archbishop; my first really dressy dress, a flowing, chiffon yellow extravaganza that I had to work for a week for the cousin sewing my dream dress, and that I wore in a cloud of happiness for an older sister’s wedding; a kilt in Royal Stewart plaid (the MacLise plaid, part of the MacPherson clan, could only be purchase by special order, thus way beyond my financial reach), paid for by winning the blackout round at a church bingo; and a purple velvet sheath made for and worn at a New Year’s Eve dance in my hometown, paid for by the careful accumulation of my babysitting money at 10 cents/hour.
These treasured ‘events’ became the fashion foundation of my personal style—bold colours, favouring jewel tones; fabulous fabrics, enhancing the female form; and classic style, dramatized with accents traditional and/or trendy.
My decade was storied: I went to Europe for the first time; I got married; I graduated from university; I had my first child—and my childhood dreams of my personal style began to turn into reality. A record of our European adventure is stored in the memories of my sister and me, with just a few photos to preserve that summer of wondrous travel. The striking thing about the way we dressed was its formality—no jeans, only pants; no short shorts, only Bermudas; and dresses & skirts, worn with stockings & heels. We each took only a small suitcase, a carryon bag and a purse because we had to be able to carry everything when we traveled by train. Our wardrobe planning was meticulous, with a colour scheme coordinating every item with almost every other one in the suitcase. Another consideration was clothes that looked decently clean after many wearings; for instance, I chose navy for my trench coat and my sister chose beige—and she deeply regretted it after the first week of our two-month sojourn.
All dressed up for a day of sightseeing.
Visiting the Vatican, with a scarf to cover my head & shoulders.
Then there’s a gap in our photo albums until the end of the decade. What a coincidence, eh, that that was when our first child was born? Like parents the world over, we doted on Sean, and began to document his fascinating life. (But our quantity of pictures pales in comparison to the hundreds taken by later generations!)
My paisley suit. For his first birthday, we hosted a dress-up affair for his contemporaries and their parents. I wore a favourite outfit that was at the height of style in the era of paisley. The suit was in a lovely burgundy shade with a flat-collared, three-buttoned, short jacket paired with a mid-thigh, A-line skirt. I had little jewellery, but my wedding pearls had the perfect setting on my bare neck framed by the round neckline of the jacket.
Stockings. And I wore stockings, de rigueur until high-fashion models started going bare-legged in the late ’80s-early ’90s. Ironically, women abandoned stockings when they could best afford them, in stark contrast to women in the first half of the 20th century. Nylons were a silky luxury that women plotted and schemed to get, then lovingly cared for them so they would last as long as possible.
But fashion is capricious, which is one of the things that makes it interesting, I think.
Mom & Sean all dressed up for his debut party.
The height of fashion in Grandma’s knits.
My Cowichan sweater. Another item I longed for and was over the moon when my mother-in-law knit me one was a Cowichan sweater. These were all the rage when I was at University of Saskatchewan in the early 1960s. When we moved to Calgary and socialized with all the other Saskatchewan mafia—as one disgruntled engineer called us when I worked with him years later, adding a profane expletive—my Cowichan sweater marked me as part of the U of S tribe.
Sean’s outfit was also knit by his grandma, and I adored it—the baby blue leggings and sweater were perfect for the crisp autumn weather of his second year on the planet. He’d toddle around, helping Dad rake leaves and sampling the soil in the planter. What’s a little dirt when you’re one year old and your curiosity needs to taste, feel, smell everything?
The decade was ushered in by the arrival of our second child in May, and the pervasive theme in the Park household was the childhood of our two boys. The pervasive theme of my wardrobe, while having to accommodate the practicality and durability of caring for active little boys, stayed fashionable with hot pants, white patent boots and bell-bottom trousers. There I am again at more birthday parties, for Jason in a hot-orange mini dress and for Sean in red hot pants & vest, both paired with the white patent boots & belt. I loved the minis & hot pants because they were oh, so flattering and sexy. Motherhood is no excuse for not staying au courant, à mon avis.
And we looked young! Compared to today’s parents, who don’t start their families until their 30s or even 40s, we looked like teenagers playing house. Couple that with dressing fashionably, and you have an accurate portrait of our family in the 1970s.
At the end of the decade, a friend and I went to London for a week of plays and shopping, while our husbands manned the homefront. (Both were well ahead of the gender ethos of that time, minding the children, cooking the meals and working fulltime in Calgary’s oilpatch while their wives went off on a culture break. We had a ball!)
That is when I bought a coat I had long admired—a wool, blue-&-brown-checked trench coat by Aquascutum, a famous British brand. Oh, how I loved that coat, always feeling so tailored and put together when I wore it on grey fall days.
And I still have it, hanging in the basement closet along with other clothes that I kept because they were just too beautiful to give away. I hoped, and still do, that a granddaughter might one day adopt one, two or three of these vintage clothes for her wardrobe.
(NB: My Gloria-Steinem-glasses fashion period began.)
France. Travel became a feature of our lives. I had promised the boys a trip to France when Sean finished elementary school. They were both enrolled in the bilingual program, Sean being in the second year this program was offered by Calgary’s public school system—Calgarians’ enthusiastic embrace of this program baffled our eastern cousins, who clung to their preconceived idea that we rednecks had no desire to learn any other language than the Queen’s English. This would be their opportunity to practise what they had learned, that is, parler français.
The three of us packed with care for our two weeks, beginning in Amsterdam, then a weekend in Paris (where Jack joined us and we celebrated Sean’s 12th birthday) and finally a tour through chateau country in the Loire Valley. Most evenings, we dressed for dinner, which meant we needed comfortable, stylish clothes for daytime as well as jackets & dress pants for the boys and dresses & suits for me for dinner. This was when I understood the glamour of French cuisine, with its many courses and formal presentation that made dinner a two- or three-hour affair. When my sister and I had gone to France in 1964, we ate cheap street food and wondered what the fuss was all about; well, in 1980, I enjoyed the fuss and savoured every morsel of the delicious, exquisitely presented food.
My navy peacoat – the perfect choice for fall in France.
Jeans, white shirt, boots – a Calgary couple, indeed!
Switzerland. Next Christmas we were back in Europe, this time in Switzerland pursuing the boys’ other passion, skiing. Our group of 12 came laden with luggage— 39 suitcases, ski bags, boot bags, etc.—that we loaded on carts in the Zurich airport and then proceeded through the tunnel to the platform for the train to Adelboden. Again, we needed clothes for daytime and for dinner, and this time we needed ski clothes as well. Winter clothes are bulky; ergo, the abundance of suitcases. Naturally, I overdid it with four ski outfits with all the matching accoutrements!
We had a merry time, skiing most days and then dining lavishly in the evening.
Jason & I in Zurich.
A classic tweed suit I loved.
The family dressed for dinner.
Family Christmas. It was time for a family Christmas, after being away the year before, and with my family that meant thousands. Not quite, but with Mom and 10 siblings plus our spouses & children, our family events were crowded and raucous and joyous. This was the year of being broke—but not too broke to wrap ourselves in fur to weather the cold Canadian winter. And Jack & I wore our fur coats on many ski hills as we stood for hours as gatekeepers while the boys wove their way down the mountains in race after race.
The sisters & Jack.
1988 Winter Olympics. What an exciting time in our wonderful hometown! Athletes and tourists came from all around the world, many for the first time, and were delighted by friendliness and good cheer of their hosts—and surprised by the volatility of our weather!
The opening ceremonies were on the coldest day of the winter, so warmth buried fashion under layers & layers of clothes. Then the Chinook arrived, and visitors & Calgarians alike threw off their bulky winter coats, and donned lighter, more fashionable wear. The snow melted, the organizers worked overtime, and the spectators mingled in the balmy outdoors.
High school graduation. Two sons, two graduations, ending our daily parental era. We were adamant that they needed to move away from their comfortable home to grow up into the fine young men they became. Two sons, two fashion choices for their big day, reflecting their different approaches to life—just as it should be.
Italy. Jack & I and another couple set off for a month in Italy to explore the southern part of the boot, including Corfu & Sicily. We started in Pietrafitta, a town & commune in the Province of Cosenza in southern Italy where Lisa’s ancestral roots are. After a couple of weeks exploring the region, we took the ferry to Corfu and spent a week of sun & sand with a dollop of sightseeing to relieve the stress of lolling around. Then back to Sicily, and finally to Rome to wrap up a glorious holiday filled with camaraderie fueled by the good food & wine that is imbued with the warmth of Italy.
Naturally, I dressed fashionably every day of the month. Naturally, this meant I had to wash clothes half way through the trip. So I bundled up our clothes—mostly mine and a few of Jack’s—and sent them off to the hotel laundry. They came back in a lovely wicker basket, immaculately folded and presented almost as a gift—and the cost was as lavish as their presentation. But it was worth every lira!
Our 25th wedding anniversary. On September 18, 1989, Jack & I celebrated 25 years of married life with all the ups & downs, bliss & bickering, laughter & tears that humans are heir to. At least adult human beings. At more than doubled that now, it’s been an interesting life…
My sister Roberta, with a little help from her family and our son Jason, organized an anniversary party. We laughed at the skit, talked about old times, and sang favourite songs, culminating in the seven sisters singing ensemble.
I dressed accordingly, that is, in fashionable amber leather pants, a copper glitter sweater and heels. The sweater was a Christmas gift from Sean in his first year at Rice University. It came with a matching skirt to create a long, lean, glamourous silhouette. I still have the sweater and wear it occasionally to the theatre or dinner; I still get compliments on its soft glitter among the prevailing monochrome of dull winter wardrobes.
It makes me think of Sean, and that makes me happy.
That’s a wrap…for now
I love big sweaters, and my panda sweater was one of my favourites. The pandas came to the Calgary Zoo, and pandamonia hit our cowboy city. Pair it with jeans & cowboy boots, and you were set to paint the town red.
And wrapping myself in another rendition of red, my favourite colour, and I bring PART I to an end—fittingly with GS glasses for one look and tortoise-shell for another.